Blackbird Film Review: Susan Sarandon Shines In End-of-Life Family Drama

Enjoying its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Blackbird is a tender tearjerker starring Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska and Sam Neill.

Blackbird is the latest film by director Roger Michell, whose past features include Notting Hill and Changing Lanes. It’s a remake of the award-winning 2014 Danish film Silent Heart.

Blackbird focuses its attention on a terminally ill mother, played by Susan Sarandon, who invites her family to their country house for one final gathering. After her two daughters (Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska) arrive with their partners, tensions quickly boil over.

Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet shine in end-of-life family drama, Blackbird.
Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet shine in end-of-life family drama, Blackbird.

Blackbird Film Review

Blackbird is sure to be one of 2019’s best family dramas, a real tearjerker that showcases the pain and angst humans have when a loved one is on the verge of dying. Featuring an all star cast, Blackbird’s raw and rambunctious script by Christian Torpe allows each of its characters to develop with authentic intensity.

The film begins as Paul (Sam Neil) and his wife Lily (Susan Sarandon) wake up in their gorgeous Connecticut beach house. While Paul prepares breakfast in the couples sun-soaked Nordic-inspired kitchen, Lily struggles out of bed. The audience quickly learns that Lily is terminally ill, but determined to be independent and not fawned over. Her devastating diagnosis of ALS is obvious, Lily’s crippled hand and bouts of exhaustion confirm she’s frustrated with her deteriorating condition.

Later that morning her eldest daughter Jennifer (Winslet) arrives with her nerdy husband and teen boy. In Jennifer, Winslet perfectly displays the Type A, bossy daughter archetype. Jennifer’s fussiness intensifies the moment her sister Anna arrives, joined by her gender non-conforming partner.

With the support of her husband, who is a doctor, Lily decides to end her life on her own terms. The end-of-life family drama follows Paul and Lily’s family as they gather for one last weekend together. While the presumption is that everyone is in agreement with Lily’s dying wishes, when faced with the reality of euthanasia, members of the family have second thoughts.

Blackbird’s script features all the hysterics one would expect from a family quarrelling over the death of its matriarch. The audience follows the drama as each character slowly unravels their painful pasts, and then suddenly a slew of secrets are revealed. At its heart, Blackbird shows a family learning to live in the moment when painful loss looms.

Blackbird press conference at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

How the Blackbird Film Came To Be

There’s no better origin story than an unassuming dinner party. Blackbird’s producer Sherryl Clark met Danish writer Christian Torpe at a feasting table. When he mentioned he’d be adapting his script for Silent Heart for a US production Clark admits, “I was just being polite saying I’ll take a look at it. But he sent it to me and I was so moved by this story of a family struggling with their mother’s decision to take her own life after being diagnosed with ALS.”

The first director that sprang to Clark’s mind was Roger Michell, whom she’d worked with on Morning Glory. He immediately responded to her request with a yes, Clark adds, “I was shocked, because you never usually get your first choice.”

The next step was casting, with Roger keen to first find his leading lady for Lily. Clark adds, “He felt it was important to go from Mom down. But we ended up getting Kate Winslet first to play the daughter. Clark then turned to one of the most iconic performers of her generation: Susan Sarandon. She called her agent who said, “Give me 24 hours, this is the perfect role for her.” Clark explains, “We emailed the script over, had it printed in New York, and had a bike messenger take it to Susan’s apartment. Within four hours she signed on.”

After Mia Wasikowska and Sam Neill signed on, Rainn Wilson soon joined, and Anson Boon was discovered by director Michell. As for the role of Chris, Anna’s gay partner, Clark says, “We had some people who had called us who wanted to do the movie and Bex Taylor-Klaus was one of them. We didn’t know Bex’s work but we were blown away.”

The Blackbird filmmakers even adapted the script for Taylor-Klaus, who is gender non-binary. “When I first read the script, Chris was still Christopher, a 32-year-old man,” says Taylor-Klaus. “I sent Roger a text message after speaking with him, saying I genuinely want to thank you for providing this opportunity because I never saw characters like me growing up. Now, I get to be characters like me for the next round of kids growing up. That’s a really cool feeling!”

Taylor-Klaus’ queer character shuffles through awkward family moments throughout the weekend. She lovingly cares for her mentally unstable partner during a rollercoaster ride ups and down. Their tender LGBT relationship on screen makes Blackbird one of the best gay TIFF films of 2019.

Kate Winslet was instrumental in finding a location for the Blackbird film, suggesting a home near her own, which could convincingly double as Connecticut. A five-week shoot commenced near Chichester, England in October 2018, when the house became a focal point of the film. “The house is a character in this story,” says Lindsay Duncan, who plays family friend Elisabeth. “It’s their home, it’s a very powerful architectural presence and hardly any scenes aren’t shot in the house.”

The majority of the Blackbird film is shot at Paul and Lily’s jaw-dropping beach house, which sits perched over the ocean amongst an expanse of rolling sand dunes. The intimacy of Blackbird’s script and narrow focus on a singular setting would make it a perfect candidate for a theatrical stage play.

Red carpet for Blackbird film at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Blackbird’s Strongest Moments Are Shared Between Sisters

Winslet had personal reasons for taking on the project. “About 18 months before the shoot, I lost my own mother. I had all those emotions building up to her passing away, which we knew was coming, she had cancer. I’d found it hard to go back to work since she died and I have a particularly keen experience of grief at this time in my life. I have been through this level of communication and know what it means to be a family going through something as devastating as the loss of a mother,” the actress shared.

Winslet’s bossy sister persona plays perfectly against Wasikowska’s bombastic mental case, who constantly feels like she’s in a fight with her family and the world at large. The two sisters couldn’t be any more different. Winslet’s Jennifer dresses in preppy clothing, follows all the rules and has married a husband who is agreeably boring. When Wasikowska’s Anna arrives late, she immediately starts bickering with her older sibling, offering the audience a peak into her struggling psyche.

We later learn that Anna is bipolar and has hidden a serious traumatic event from the family. She’s apprehensive about her mothers plan, fearful that Lily has really never had a chance to get to know her. When the family enjoy a short walk to the beach, Lily’s underlying appreciation for her daughters is revealed. At sunset the family stands on a sun-soaked sand dune when Lily shares it was the exact spot that Jennifer was conceived. When Anna asks her own origin story Lily laughs, claiming they had sex in a bed bug infested hotel in Buffalo.

At this very moment, gay film fans will recognize the pain and anguish members of the LGBT community experience in looking for validation from their parents. Anna’s mental state continues to devolve from here, sharing with her partner that she’s going to call 911 to prevent her mother from ending her life. The audience gasps when Anna sobs, “I want to know her. I need more time!”

Lily requests her last dinner to be a celebratory faux Christmas feast. After the family dresses a tree and bastes a rack of lamb, tensions ride high at the table. Lily celebrates a carefree farewell by smoking marijuana, which is passed around and sampled even by Jennifer, who finally appears to be loosening up.

A turning point in the Blackbird film takes place when Lily lovingly says how proud she is of her two girls. Anna loses it at the table, storming off to her room. Her partner notices the serious of the situation and takes Jennifer aside to inform her of her sisters devastating plan. The final 24 hours in the family home are filled with tears, hysteria and the revelation of several shocking secrets.

In the films final moments, the audience holds back tears while teetering on the edge of their seats, quietly asking, “Will these sisters who very much love their dying mother be able to stand together during her final hour?”

Other Gay Movies You Might Enjoy…

Blackbird

Director Roger Michell's Blackbird focuses its attention on a terminally ill mother, played by Susan Sarandon, who invites her family to their country house for one final gathering. After her two daughters (Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska) arrive with their partners, tensions quickly boil over.

Date Created: September 6, 2019

Runtime: 97 min

  • Genre:
  • Drama
  • Producers:
  • Sherryl Clark,
  • Rob Van Norden,
  • David Bernardi,
  • Director:
  • Roger Michell
  • Writer:
  • Cast:
  • Susan Sarandon,
  • Sam Neill,
  • Kate Winslet,
  • Mia Wasikowska,
  • Lindsay Duncan,
  • Rainn Wilson,
  • Bex Taylor-Klaus,
  • Anson Boon,
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